The latest one sentence summaries of the books I’ve read between the last round up in April 2020 and the end of June 2020.
Mariana Mazzucato “The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy”: Excellent book that takes to task economics as a subject (for getting disconnected from the notion of value), and big businesses that have become financialised, focusing on short term returns for their shareholders (and themselves), rather than (re-)investing, while also offering a solution to the identified problems.
Muriel Gray “The First Fifty: Munro-Bagging Without a Beard”: I remember enjoying Gray’s television series about climbing Munros from many years ago, and while the text does now seem a little dated (1991), it still has its moments.
David Attenborough “Adventures of a Young Naturalist”: The early career of the UK’s favourite naturalist covers his expeditions for the Zoo Quest series, but does raise the moral dilemma about whether the animals should have been left to thrive in the wild, or captured and put into captivity (not always for conservation purposes).
Olafur Eliasson “In Real Life”: The fascinating book that accompanies 2019’s exhibition at Tate Modern comprises several interviews by Eliasson with experts and practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds; he manages to bring them all together in a coherent way that informs his practice as an architect and designer. (Note: this is the book without a spine in the image, which is how it was published, for some reason!)
Robert Elwall “Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith”:Smith was a fantastic photographer, and this book provides plenty of insights into his career and his methods, with a wide selection of photographs that illustrate why he was (and still is) held in such high regard.
Angus Peter Campbell, Shona Grant and Lesley Hardy “Oighreachd ar Sinnsearan (Catching the Spirit of South Uist and Eriskay)”; Shona Grant and Lesley Hardy “Dualchas àraid agus prìseil (A Unique and Precious Culture)”:Two beautifully curated companion volumes of the photographs of Dr Kenneth Robertson, who lived and worked in South Uist and Eriskay for many years, evocatively capturing the spirit of the place and the people in the 1950s and 60s.
Adam Sobsey “Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography”: An unofficial biography which never quite makes up its mind about what it really wants to be, and ends up falling short on all levels as a result.
Louise Welsh “No Dominion”: The final part of the excellent Plague Times trilogy, published in 2017, unwittingly (and scarily) predicts some of the situations we have seen arise during the time of Coronavirus.
Ali Smith “Spring”: The third part of Smith’s seasons series is another keenly observed critique of modern life in the UK, this time focusing on the immigration system and the way that detainees are so badly treated.
Giacomo Leopardi “Moral Fables Followed by Thoughts” (Translated by J.G. Nichols): Leopardi, who is regarded as one of Italy’s finest poets, was a true polymath (poetry, philosophy, philology and more), and this interesting volume combines his Moral Fables with his Thoughts, many of which will still resonate with people today, even though he died in the early 19th century shortly before his 39th birthday.
W.B. Yeats “The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats”: A marathon, not a sprint, which reflects Yeats’ prodigious poetry output, covering a very wide range of topics, and illustrating his mastery of pretty much any, and every style of writing verse.
The latest one sentence summaries of the books I’ve read between the last round up in February 2020 and the end of April 2020.
Shoshana Zuboff “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”: A very good investigation into, and explanation of how companies like Facebook and Google (and many others) are now tracking everything you do, and using that information to make money; it is very long, though.
Matt Haig “Notes on a Nervous Planet”: Given the current lockdown conditions, there has never been a better time to read Notes on a Nervous Planet which offers observations, tips and lessons for dealing with the modern world where we spend so much (read too much) time online.
Robert Bilott “Exposure”: Brilliant book of the film Dark Waters, based on the case against Dupont who knowingly poisoned the local waters in West Virginia, which highlights how hard it is to get justice when you’re up against the resources of a multi-national company that is hand in glove with the government and its agencies.
Carlo Rovelli “The Order of Time”: If you think you understand what time is, this book may change your mind, introducing a contemporary view of time that tackles issues arising from quantum theory and gravitational waves, all presented in a readable manner.
Tim Parks “Italian Neighbours”: There are few people who have captured the contemporary nature of Italy and the Italians as well as Tim Parks, whose writing manages to be amusing, insightful and engaging.
Hania Allen “The Family Business”: The latest in the Polish Detective series, in which DI Dania Gorska investigates a cold case that intersects with a live case, centring on one Dundee family, in particular.
Elizabeth Taylor “The Soul of Kindness”: Fantastic, easy to read book that captures the social mores of life in the 20th century in the UK, in the same way that Jane Austen did in her time.
Albert Camus “The Plague”: Although it was written as an allegory (with Fascism being The Plague), this excellent book has taken on a more literal meaning in recent years, first with SARS, and then again with the Coronavirus pandemic: scarily prescient in many places.
“Early Irish Myths and Sagas”: I read this to help understand some of WB Yeats’ poetry (an ongoing task), and it’s fascinating to learn some of the folklore of Ireland, in addition to gaining an understanding of how the legends have developed over time, and discover something more of the history of Ireland too.
Karen Solie “The Caiplie Caves”: This brilliant award-winning volume is part history, part philosophy, part contemporary, and all poetry; I read it in sections at Caiplie Caves on the Fife Coast during my daily exercise walks!
The latest one sentence summaries of the books I’ve read between the last round up in December 2019 and the end of February 2020.
Booker T. Jones “Time is Tight: My Life, Note By Note”: The life and times of the legendary multi-talented Booker T., running from pre-Stax to the current day, all arranged by theme, rather than in a linear time-line.
Michael Caine “Blowing the Bloody Doors Off and Other Lessons in Life”: Caine reflects on the many things he’s learned over his life and career and passes them on, in an autobiographical way.
Jan Morris “In My Mind’s Eye”: Arguably Britain’s best travel writer turns her hand to keeping a diary for half a year, laying out her thoughts, sometimes big, sometimes small, but always engaging.
Vivien Goldman “Revenge of the She-Punks”: Insightful exploration of how women in (rock) music across the globe have been addressing some of the world’s problems from a feminist perspective, with illustrative playlists for each chapter, although the conclusion could have been much stronger.
Richard Fortey “The Earth: An Intimate History”: A fascinating history of planet earth, with a focus on plate tectonics to explain how the continents and mountains ended up where they (currently) are; could have done with a few more diagrams to illustrate some of his descriptions.
Simon Yates “Against the Wall”: The man who cut the rope on Joe Simpson in “Touching The Void” heads to Patagonia to tackle a new route up the east face of the Central Tower of Paine, and comes away having learned several personal lessons about life.
Jonathan Coe “Middle England”: Brilliant book that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of post-referendum Britain in a way that is both humorous and deeply insightful.
Peter Robinson “Careless Love”: The latest book in the DCI Banks series: this time Banks (and Annie) attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding the deaths of three people all dressed to the nines yet found in separate remote locations within a short space of time.
Vladimir Nabokov “Lolita”: Nabokov’s classic tale about Humbert Humbert—recently departed—and his fantasies about nymphets and how, through a strange series of coincidences, he ends up realising them with his stepdaughter Dolores (aka Lolita), before things go awry.
Ann Cleeves “Wild Fire”: The final book in the Shetland series: detective Jimmy Perez tries to find the killers of a live-in nanny and an island gossip, with the usual twists and turns that come from living in a small island community.
The latest one sentence summaries of the books I’ve read between the last round up in October and the end of December 2019.
bauhaus-archive berlin & magdalene droste “bauhuas”: An excellent updated comprehensive insight into the workings of the Bauhaus from its opening in 1919 to its closure in 1933, that is jam-packed with photographs of the people and their creations.
Fiona MacCarthy “Walter Gropius: Visionary Founder of the Bauhaus”: MacCarthy, one of Britain’s best biographers, explores the fascinating life and times of Gropius before, during and after the Bauhaus, at great length.
Bernard Cribbins “Bernard Who?”: Written in an easy to read, conversational style, this is a hugely enjoyable compilation of anecdotes, rather than a “conventional” autobiography, and has lots of “Well, I never knew that!” moments.
Steve Brusatte “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs”: The dinosaurs never really died out–birds are the ancestors of dinosaurs–and Brusatte presents an insightful exploration of how the dinosaurs came and ultimately went, based on the most recent scientific evidence.
John Blashford-Snell “Something Lost Behind the Ranges”: Brilliant autobiographical book covering the life and times of intrepid explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell, the founder of Operation Drake, Operation Raleigh, and the Scientific Exploration Society; strap in for a rollercoaster ride that is way more exciting than anything Indiana Jones ever did!
Ron Ferguson “Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil”: Acknowledged by many as a classic (a recently updated edition is available), Ferguson offers something like a social history of Cowdenbeath, the (former) mining town, and the football club, with all the inherent highs and lows.
Jeff Connor “A Season with Britain’s Worst Football Team”: Connor presents an outsider’s view of a season with East Stirlingshire FC, although many of the episodes could be applied to several clubs in the lower leagues in Scottish football.
D.H. Lawrence “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”: Yes, the infamous one, revisited before embarking on the historical novel about the real Lady Chatterley (see below).
Annabel Abbs “Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley”: Very well-researched piece of historical fiction that offers lots of interesting observations into the life and times of the woman who provided the character for the real Lady Chatterley.
Halldor Laxness “Independent People”: Classic tale of life as a rural Icelander–translated from the Icelandic by J.A. Thompson from Berwick-on-Tweed–as the main protagonist (Bjartur of Summerhouses) struggles to make his own way through life and all the trials and tribulations it hurls at him.
Andrea Camilleri “The Overnight Kidnapper”: Another fantastic tale of Inspector Salvo Montalbano (and his band of merry men) this time battling to solve the case of a series of short term kidnappings in which there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme of reason to connect the crimes… or is there?
Simon Armitage “The Unaccompanied”: 2017s brilliant collection by the inimitable new Poet Laureate, dealing with the issues of a world that is probably in even more turmoil now than it was just a couple of years ago.
The latest one sentence summaries of the books I’ve read between the last round up in August and the end of October 2019.
David Ross “George & Robert Stephenson: A Passion for Success”: The story of the Father of the railways and his son is a very interesting look at the development of the railways in the early 19th century, although it would have benefited from some heavier editing, and fewer critical comments about other biographers’ reviews of the Stephensons.
Charles Shaar Murray “Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop”: An interesting, atypical biography that looks at Hendrix’s life through the impact he had elsewhere in music.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney “The Wavewatcher’s Companion”: Fascinating exploration of everything you ever wanted to know about waves of all different types, shapes and sizes.
Thomas Levenson “The Hunt for Vulcan”: Very readable tale of how there was once a planet called Vulcan, until Einstein came along and managed to explain why it didn’t exist.
Adam Smith “Wealth of Nations”: Long, but well worth reading; Smith wouldn’t recognise the bastardised phenomenon they call “capitalism” these days.
Ed Vulliamy “When Words Fail”: Excellent autobiographical book that tries to capture the relationship between music and war (and peace) from the some time war correspondent and music critic, with a very useful bibiography and discography.
Mel Sherratt “Hush Hush”: Very good crime thriller in which DS Grace Allendale returns to her home town of Stoke and comes up against her criminal family when investigating a series of brutal murders.
Madame de Staël “Corinne, or Italy”: Fabulous novel that is all about (the fragility of) love: between two people; of people; of culture; and of places–Italy in particular.
Hania Allen “Clearing The Dark”: Another fine tale in which Polish Detective Dania Gorska tackles more of the criminal fraternity in and around Dundee, written by my neighbour!
Raymond Antrobus “The Perseverance”: Latest set of fabulous, soul-searching poems from the brilliant D/deaf poet, Raymond Antrobus.
The latest one sentence summaries of the 11 books I’ve read between the last round up in June and the end of August 2019.
Joe Boyd “White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s”: Terrific account of the music industry at a time of great upheaval when folk and rock collided, including working with the likes of Nick Drake, and Sandy Denny.
Sue Nelson “Wally Funk’s Race for Space”: The story of the force of nature that is Wally Funk, part of the Mercury 13 female astronauts programme that was cancelled, and trailblazer for women in aviation.
Ben Ratliff “Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now”: Interesting notion, but too pretentious by far, relying on way too many musical examples for illustration that won’t feature in most people’s music collections.
Helen Jukes “A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings”: Brilliant book about how an interest turns into a near obsession, it works both as a sort of introduction to how to get started in bee keeping as well as personal tale of self-discovery.
Mary Beard “Women & Power”: The excellent Mary Beard’s two London Review of Books lectures on feminism, using the classics to illustrate the length of history of the problem, and pondering on the need to redefine what we mean by “power” in order to solve it.
Peig Sayers “An Old Woman’s Reflections”: A wonderful collection of oral tales and reminiscences from Big Peig, one of the last people to live on the island of Great Blasket off the coast of County Kerry.
Jon McGregor “Reservoir 13”: A near stream of consciousness diary-style account of life in a village in the years following the unexplained disappearance of a young girl.
Jorge Luis Borges “Fictions”: The cleverly written, classic set of short stories which often appear to be more than fiction.
Andrea Camilleri “The Pyramid of Mud”: In the 22nd Montalbano book, which is just as good as all of the rest of them, corruption in the construction industry forms the canvas for the inspector’s investigations.
Max Brooks “World War Z”: You want zombies, this book has the them, a fictional reportage of what happened during and after the world waged war on the undead.
Jalal-Din Rumi “Selected Poems of Rumi”: An interesting, short, curated volume of some of the works of the legendary Sufi mystic Rumi.
The latest one sentence summaries of the books I’ve read since the last round up at in April and the end of June.
Amy Liptrot “The Outrun”: Excellent autobiographical book about coping with alcoholism while living in London, and family mental health issues, with more than a little help from a return to the the wild and wondrously beautiful surroundings of Orkney.
Patti Smith “Devotion”: An easy-to-read short triptych of a book, part autobiographical/diary, part novel, part analytical (on how she writes).
Richard Holmes “This Long Pursuit”: Britain’s greatest living biographer reflects on a career as a Romantic biographer using a wide-ranging selection of biographical chapters ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft to William Blake.
Naomi Klein “This Changes Everything”: Very detailed analysis of climate change issues, highlighting how things have gone wrong, but retaining an optimistic note.
John Thackra “How to Thrive in the Next Economy”: A journey through many of the issues we need to confront to cope with the effects of climate change, and how people are dealing with things in a bottom-up way.
Extinction Rebellion “This is not a Drill”: The Extinction Rebellion handbook is an excellent series of short essays (including one by Caroline Lucas) that tell you everything you need to know about who they are, what they do, and how you can get involved.
Jo Nesbo “The Snowman”: First Nesbo I’ve read: it has one too many plot twists to be perfect, meaning it’s about 100+ pages too long to be an excellent book.
M.R. James “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”: A fine collection of short ghost stories from the master.
Italo Calvino “Our Ancestors”: A trilogy of the master storyteller’s best shorter works, with lots of highs, lows, and intrigue.
Kate Macarenhas “The Psychology of Time Travel”: An interesting read, which has several clever and unexpected twists, with the events laid out in a non-linear timeline: a sort of Sci-Fi whodunnit.
Lemn Sissay “Gold from the Stone”: A compendium of the inspirational man’s poetry, including some of his newer works.
William Blake “Songs of Innocence and Experience”: A very nice almost pocket-sized edition of two of Blake’s calssic works, with facsimile reproductions of his engravings.
A one sentence summary of the books I’ve been reading over the last few weeks.
Mark Miodownik “Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World”: A fascinating analysis of the materials that appear in a photograph of everyday life (the author drinking coffee in his roof garden).
Thom Eagle “First Catch: Study of a Spring Meal”: A cookery book based around a single menu, First Catch will change the way you think about cooking.
Andrea Wulf “The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science”: Excellent biography of the genius who highlighted the links between humans and the natural world, and flagged up how deforestation was linked to climate change in 1800.
Gaia Vince “Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made”: A brilliant eye-opening exploration of the issues facing the planet as a whole (water supply, food production, electricity, climate change and so on) covering how they are linked and what we can do about it.
Olivia Lang “Crudo”: A few hectic weeks in the life of fictional author, Kathy Acker, trying to deal with the problems of surviving in a post-EU referendum, Trumpian world.
Kurt Vonnegut “Cat’s Cradle”: Vonnegut’s eerie, satirical picture of a dysfunctional world is as relevant today as it ever has been.
Philip Hensher (Ed.) “The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story”: Proof that the short story is alive and kicking in Britain, including works from Ali Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Irvine Welsh, Rose Tremain and many more.
Hannah Rothschild “The Improbability of Love”: An intriguing fictional biography of the life of an artwork (which gives the book its title) presented as a detective story which slowly reveals its chequered past.
Hello World: How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine. By H. FRY (London, UK: Doubleday, 2018). pp. 244 + xii, hardback (ISBN 978-0-8575-2524-6), £18.99.
“In the age of the algorithm, humans have never been more important.” With these words, Hannah Fry concludes her exploration of the state of the art of AI (but see below) as it affects everyday life. Mathematician Fry will be best known to people in the UK, where she’s built a reputation as an excellent science communicator. She presented the documentary The Joy of Data for BBC4, and co-presents The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry on BBC Radio 4. She also recently started a regular slot, The Maths of Life, on Lauren Laverne’s breakfast show on BBC Radio 6 Music.
There’s Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Computational Statistics
Hello World focuses mostly on Machine Learning (ML) rather than AI per se, although the mainstream media (and some tech companies, who really should know better) often equate the two. And, as Fry notes, when people say “Machine Learning” what they are really talking about is computational statistics. Don’t let this put you off, however. You don’t need to be an expert in maths or statistics to understand what’s going on here. Where a little extra knowledge is needed to grasp a particular concept, Fry provides it in a concise, easy-to-understand way. So those who aren’t familiar with (as well as those who can’t remember!) Bayes’ Theorem, for example, will come away with a basic idea of how it works, as well as how and where it’s being used.
No Silver Bullet
The Big Tech companies, amongst others, would have you believe that AI (read ML) is the solution to all our problems. Fry debunks this myth in a clear and highly readable manner that will appeal to people of all abilities. She begins with a high level description of ML, and the algorithms involved, before moving on to critique how it is being (and has been) deployed, using a plethora of examples showing how the algorithms are having an impact on our everyday lives.
For the most part, ML is used in areas where we rely on human decision-making. We know from the work of people like Dan Kahneman that human decision-making is far from perfect, particularly when there’s a lot of data, and not a lot of time to come up with a suitable answer. In these situations we often rely on what Kahneman calls System One thinking (in his excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow), which is quick and works fine a lot of the time. It can lead to problems, however, in those cases where we should really have spent more time deliberating over the problem using the slower System Two thinking. One classic, albeit simple, example used in the book is:
A bat and ball together cost £1.10.
The bat costs £1 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
(The answer is given at the foot of this review.)
From Chess to the Arts via Self-Driving Cars
Fry examines the power of ML algorithms, and the ways in which data is being harvested to feed them, some of which she describes as creepy. She illustrates the power starting with the familiar tale of the chess match between Garry Kasparov and Big Blue. While many will know the original outcome, they may be less aware of some of the clever behaviours that Big Blue was programmed to exhibit, and how it changed the way that Kasparov plays chess. The discussion about data will be a bit of an eye-opener for some people when they discover that there are companies — data brokers — whose sole business model is to sell your personal data; it may also make you think twice about signing up with genealogy companies that ask for your DNA.
It would be almost impossible to provide comprehensive coverage of all the areas where ML is being used, but Fry offers a very good cross-section. She shows how ML is already affecting our lives, for better or worse, in areas such as determining the length of custodial sentences in criminal justice; diagnosing cancer; helping cars to drive themselves; aiding the prevention and detection of crime; and even in making works of art, including music. In each of the different areas Fry critically appraises what the algorithms can do, always making sure that we’re aware of the bad as well as the good. While some of the examples will be familiar, having received coverage in the press, others will not. There is enough detail in the main text, however, to satisfy the interest of both casual readers and passing experts. Anyone wanting a more detailed exposition can follow the endnotes to the extensive list of references at the back of the book.
Fry shows that the consequences of using ML are often relatively benign, but sometimes they can be very disturbing, as in the case of Steve Talley. He was severely beaten when he was arrested for carrying out two armed bank robberies. Talley was mistakenly identified, using face recognition (AI) software, and it took him over a year to clear his name, even though he had a cast-iron alibi.
The chapter on cars was of particular interest to me. Although research into self-driving cars has been around since the 1950s, it has really taken off in the last 20 years or so. These cars employ a plethora of sensors, and use Bayes Theorem to try to make sense of the world that the car perceives as it drives along. Current forecasts suggest that there will be autonomous vehicles on the roads from about 2020. They’ll be rather more limited than some people would have you believe, however, and there are still many problems to be solved. These include technological ones, such as how to cope with faulty or failed sensors, and how to break the car’s pre-programmed “rules of the road” so that you can do things like drive on the pavement to let an ambulance pass. But there are others too, such as the ethical problem of choosing between two possible outcomes, when both will lead to fatalities.
Rather than just allowing the cars to take over, Fry suggests that we should perhaps be thinking more in terms of the car working together with the driver. So, in some (limited) situations the car would be in control and act as a sort of chauffeur, while in others it would act more as a monitor to make sure that the driver, who is in control, is paying appropriate attention. Toyota is following this approach, which gives you the best of both worlds.
People + Transparent Technology
Fry picks up on the need for people and technology to work together from Bainbridge’s classic Ironies of Automation. Many of the problems described in that paper are still prevalent some 35 years later. Fry goes on to suggest that we should be exploiting ML as a tool to support human decision-making, rather than replacing it. That way we can exploit the fact that people are better at doing some things, while technology is better at others. It also means that the responsibility for taking actions based on the final decision ultimately rests with the human. This strongly resonates with our approach when designing the FLORENCE (Fuzzy LOgic REspiratory Neonatal Care Expert) system a few years ago. FLORENCE was designed to help junior doctors make decisions when treating premature babies with Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Even though FLORENCE could have automatically implemented its decisions, we decided that they would always be carried out by the doctors. We also let staff use their own discretion in implementing FLORENCE’s suggestions. As long as they gave their reasons for doing so, they were allowed to override FLORENCE.
The other main thing that Fry singles out is the need for algorithms to be transparent, so that we can understand how they arrive at their decisions. It’s just like school, where you always had to show your working in mathematics… at least in my day! We designed FLORENCE to be able to provide its line of reasoning on request. This need for explanation is critical, because when any technology goes wrong—which it will, at some point—it is invariably the user (pilot, driver, whoever) that has to step in. In order to do so, however, they need to know what the system is currently doing.
Hello World is an excellent book. It’s a very easy read, and requires no prior knowledge of ML (or AI, more generally). For novices and casual readers, it provides a very good introduction to ML and its strengths and weaknesses. For those with a background in ML, it provides plenty of pointers for futher investigation in the references. Hello World won’t teach you how to write an ML algorithm, although it can be used to generate a set of principles (covering data collection, transparency, accuracy thresholds and so on) to help guide anyone who does. The book is very current, using several recent examples to illustrate its points. There is now a paperback edition available too, which includes an extra chapter. I highly recommend Hello World to everyone with an interest in ML, from those wanting to find out a little bit more about AI — ML, in particular — to those who are (or will be) developing ML algorithms.
ANSWER: For those who are still wondering about the bat and ball problem, the ball costs 5p (and the bat costs £1.05). Many people when they first encounter the problem think that the ball costs 10p, but that would mean that the bat costs £1.10, so the cost of both bat and ball would be £1.20, rather than £1.10.